The death of Chicago tenor saxophone giant Von Freeman last year, at age 88, was a blow to anyone who valued the fierce individuality, technical bravura and high-toned showmanship of his work – which means listeners around the world.
But few felt the loss more acutely than Freeman's younger brother, guitarist George Freeman, who had followed Von's path into jazz and achieved great things as well, playing with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin and other luminaries.
The guitarist lived with his brother in the family home on the South Side for many years before Von's death and lives there still. Yet he's pressing forward in ways that surely would have pleased his more celebrated sibling.
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Life today "is quite different," says George Freeman, 86, even though "I'm (still) living in this house. Von and I have been together 24/7 for a long, long time. ...
"Von has been my best friend. I don't think I could have done it as well as I've done it without Von, playing the guitar. I learned from Von how to play ballads, how to play standards, which is very important, and how not to overplay the instrument. ...
"How to make people feel the story, make people cry, make people hear what you're saying."
And yet, "Since Von has been gone," adds Freeman, "it's been an inspiration to make me want to do more."
The guitarist indeed has picked up the tempo of his performance life, thanks to a quartet he formed with guitarist Mike Allemana in August. Engagements at Constellation, where the band launched, and Andy's Jazz Club were quite well received and have led to a return at Constellation on Friday night, plus further bookings for next year.
That Freeman and Allemana clicked will come as no surprise to any student or fan of the Freeman dynasty, which included the late drummer Eldridge "Bruz" Freeman (another sibling) and the accomplished tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman (Von's son). For Allemana played a pivotal role in Von's band from 1997 until the saxophonist's death.
In effect, the two guitarists – Freeman and Allemana – are picking up a story line that seemed to have ended but, surprisingly, now continues on in new ways.
The idea for the partnership originated with drummer-impresario Mike Reed, who founded Constellation and ranks among the city's most admired progenitors of new music.
As Allemana remmebers it, Reed "called me up in July and said, 'Hey, man, you want to do a month at Constellation? I've got this idea of you being with George.
"I thought he was crazy. When I called George, he (said), 'Well, sure, let's try it.'
"And it was like the greatest thing that could have happened – for me, anyway. It brought George and I close together, in a lot of different ways. Musically, I'm learning a ton about guitar.
"Also, because I'm doing a Ph.D in ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, my idea is to do some sort of dissertation or research on Von. ... And (George) is helping me prepare for the research."
But Freeman hastens to add that he, too, has been benefiting from his work in the Freeman-Allemana Quartet, which also features organist Pete Benson and drummer Mike Schlick.
"It's something quite different, because we're playing hard — we're not playing cocktail type music," says Freeman. "It's hard, bashing bebop and jazz and swinging. Of course, we play ballads.
"I would like to see us record one day. It would be a shame for people not to hear two guitar players bashing. Sometimes we're against each other, like warriors. We've got the background, the organ, Schlick on drums – it makes it very interesting."
And it makes for the latest chapter in Freeman's remarkable, if somewhat unheralded career. Having attended DuSable High School and studied music there under the fabled Capt. Walter Dyett, Freeman by the late 1940s and '50s found himself backing the jazz giants who strode into town. His collaborations with saxophone icons such as Parker, Griffin, Ammons and Young, and with organist Richard "Groove" Holmes," earned him something of a national reputation, as did residencies in New York, Philadelphia and California. But after Ammons' death in 1974, Freeman decided to come home for good.
"I came home when my stepfather passed in the '70s," recalls Freeman. "They tried to make me stay in New York. I said, 'No, I'm going home. I gave up all the glory and came home."